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Arms v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Wisconsin

March 26, 2019

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Calvin Mark Arms seeks judicial review of a final decision of defendant Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying his application for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits for a four-year period between 2011 and 2015. The administrative law judge (ALJ) found that Arms had several severe impairments during the period in question, but concluded that Arms retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with several postural, environmental, mental, and movement restrictions. Within this RFC, the ALJ determined that Arms could meet the demands of both his past work and other jobs in the economy, so the ALJ found him not disabled.

         On appeal, Arms contends that: (1) the restrictions included in the RFC failed to account for all of Arms's mental and hearing-related limitations and were inadequately explained; (2) there were unexplained discrepancies between the vocational expert's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles; and (3) the vocational expert's job-numbers testimony lacked a foundation and was not sufficiently reliable. The court concludes that a remand is necessary because the ALJ failed to adequately explain why he didn't include certain limitations in the RFC.


         Arms first applied for disability benefits in 2007, but this appeal concerns an application that he submitted in 2013. It is Arms's second appeal of this application for benefits. In a March 24, 2016 decision, ALJ Michael Shaefer determined that Arms became disabled on March 1, 2015 and awarded benefits as of that date, but denied benefits for the period dating back to Arms's alleged disability onset date of June 30, 2011. R. 17-34.[1] Arms appealed that decision to this court. Before the case was fully briefed, the parties stipulated to remand the case to the agency with instructions that the ALJ should reevaluate the RFC finding, describe how the evidence supports the RFC finding, further evaluate Arms's symptoms and the opinion evidence, and, if warranted, obtain supplemental vocational expert testimony. See Arms v. Colvin, No. 16-cv-595-slc (W.D. Wis., Jan. 23, 2017). The same ALJ held another hearing on January 18, 2018, at which he heard testimony from Arms; an agency psychological expert, Dr. Ellen Rozenfeld; and a vocational expert, Dr. Jacquelyn Wenkman. He issued a new decision denying Arms's application for back benefits in April 2018.[2] R. 2204-18.

         The ALJ found that Arms suffered from several severe impairments during the period in question: bilateral shoulder and left hip anthropathies, mood disorder/dysthymia, anxiety, personality/intermittent explosive disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity/learning disorders. R. 2208. He found that Arms had “more than mild but no more than moderate limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information; interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing oneself.” R. 2210. In light of these and other limitations, the ALJ found that Arms maintained the RFC to perform light work with additional restrictions. Only some of those restrictions are relevant for the purposes of this decision. They include three restrictions that Arms says do not reflect the underlying medical evidence:

• Should avoid all exposure to very loud noise in the workplace, and is limited to work not requiring fine hearing capability or frequent verbal communication
• Limited to understanding, remembering and carrying out simple instructions and routine, repetitive tasks (at GED language and reasoning levels of two or below)
• Limited to only simple work-related decisions or judgments performed in an environment not involving fast paced production requirements and few if any changes in work duties or environment

         R. 2210-11. Arms contends that two of the other restrictions in the RFC are inconsistent with the jobs that the ALJ found he could perform:

• Can frequently push or pull laterally or to the front but never overhead on any routine basis
• Can only occasionally reach about shoulder height R. 2210.

         Based on the RFC, the ALJ determined that, between 2011 and 2015, Arms could have performed his past relevant work as a product assembler (DOT 706.687-010), both as that work was actually performed by Arms in the past and as it is generally performed in the national economy. R. 2215. A claimant who can perform his past relevant work is not disabled as a matter of law. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(2). The ALJ also concluded based on testimony from the vocational expert that there were other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Arms could perform, such as packaging (DOT 920.687-090), assembly (DOT 737.684-022), or cleaning jobs (DOT 323.687-014). R. 2216. This finding was an independent basis for deeming Arms not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c).

         In accordance with these findings, ALJ Shaefer denied Arms's application for benefits. This appeal followed.


         The court reviews the final decision of an ALJ “to determine whether it applies the correct legal standard and is supported by substantial evidence.” Summers v. Berryhill, 864 F.3d 523, 526 (7th Cir. 2017). Substantial evidence means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Stephens v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 323, 327 (7th Cir. 2018). The court reviews the record as a whole, but it cannot ...

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